Every follower of Jesus knows that humility is important. It’s cliché even to talk about it. We hear about it all the time from spiritual leaders and read about it in the books they write.
Yeshua taught about it, too. Humility even made it into the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the meek [or humble], for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).
It’s easy for us to assume that we’ve heard it all before and that there’s nothing new for us to learn about humility. I felt that way, too, before I started studying musar literature. Now I know that most people would have a hard time even properly defining the word “humility,” much less putting this trait into serious practice.
What Is Humility?
Let’s take a quick look at how some of the most famous teachers of musar defined humility. We’ll start with Bachya ibn Paquda, who wrote the following in his masterpiece, Duties of the Heart:
Humility is the soul’s sense of lowliness, its acquiescence, and its lack of self-importance. It is one of the qualities of the soul and, when internalized, comes to expression externally in the form of gentle speech, a soft voice, meekness when angered, and restraint in taking revenge when one has the power to exact it.
The Ways of the Righteous offers a similar definition:
And what is humility? It is self-effacement and lowliness of spirit and regarding oneself as naught. A man is obligated at all times and on every occasion to be unworthy in his own eyes, and lowly of spirit, and soft of heart, and broken spirited.
Yeshua used a different tactic: He described pride and arrogance and told his disciples to embrace the opposite:
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave. (Matthew 20:25-27)
The Opposite of Pride
The path to humility can be illuminated by thinking about what it looks like to be proud and then avoiding those thoughts and actions characterized by pride. Of course, prideful people will often brag about themselves, insist on their own ways, focus on their own needs, and try to dominate those around them. Sometimes pride is more subtle, however. A lack of interest in the opinions of others, a tendency to blame others and focus on their faults, or an inability to handle criticism also indicates a pride problem.
Consider Yeshua’s parable in Luke 14:7-11. He sat down to eat at a Pharisee’s house with some other prominent men. As the meal began, he noticed how people had chosen their seats—some had accorded more honor to themselves by choosing prominent seats; others were relegated to places of lesser eminence. Yeshua admonished them: “Do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited … and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place” (Luke 14:8-9).
The more prideful a person is, the less seriously that person will consider the possibility that other people might be just as important as he or she is. Far from being “unworthy in their own eyes,” as the author of The Ways of the Righteous put it, prideful people feel that they must be prioritized above everyone else.
The thing is, most people with pride problems would never describe themselves as such. When was the last time you heard someone say outright that he or she was the most important person in the world? For most proud people, the way they act is completely natural to them; prideful people may even describe themselves as humble.
Someone without the self-awareness to realize his or her faults will have to wait for someone else to point out those faults, like the person in Yeshua’s parable who chose the seat of honor only to get booted to a place of lower prominence by the host. Unfortunately, pride can also keep us from assessing our mistakes and realizing where we have gone astray. A prideful person might simply blame the host for embarrassing him or her.
A Broken Spirit
This is where musar’s definitions can be so helpfully descriptive. Remember what Rabbeinu Bachya said: “Humility is a lack of self-importance.” The Ways of the Righteous goes even further: “A humble person is actually broken spirited.” Broken-spirited people know that they are in need of improvement. They are willing to accept correction. They can work on their flaws because they aren’t blinded by pride. They are happy to yield to others because they aren’t consumed with self-importance.
I hope it’s starting to become clear that the attitude of humility is the foundation for all other character growth. The middah of humility opens our hearts to the possibility and necessity of growth and change. With humility as our starting point, we can begin a process of honest self-assessment and thus realize the next steps on our path of spiritual development. Without it, we remain spiritual infants, incapable of reaching maturity.